The names of our Internet speeds and services can undoubtedly be confusing. It used to just be 3G and 4G, but now between 4G+, 4GX, XLTE, LTE-A and VoLTE, how is anyone supposed to keep track of exactly what these acronyms mean?
Luckily for you, we’ve done the sifting and searching through the mounds of technological jargon out there. For a basic explanation of these crazy acronyms, read on.
4G+ and LTE-A
These two are explained together because, well, they’re the same thing. It just depends on what country you’re in and how your carrier chose to brand it.
In South Korea and the United States, it’s called LTE-A (or LTE Advanced), but in Singapore, France, Qatar, and the Netherlands, it’s called 4G+. In total, LTE-A/4G+ deployment has begun in 31 countries, though it’s actual availability is incredibly limited due to the small number of devices that support it and the limited number of markets. Most carriers will start with the biggest cities and slowly build their way out to support more markets in the future.
And if you’re in Australia, maybe you’ve heard of Optus’ “4G Plus“, which is an entirely different thing. What they call 4G Plus is really just a fancy name for their 4G LTE network.
How Can I Get It?
Given the wide range of carriers, countries, and devices out there, it’s impossible to say exactly where LTE-A is available at the moment. In most places, the only devices to support LTE-A are the Huawei Honor 6, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Galaxy Alpha, and Galaxy S5 4G+ (also known as the Galaxy S5 Plus).
It’s tricky, though, because the Galaxy Note 4 variant available in the United States doesn’t support LTE-A. The two major carriers in the US, AT&T and Verizon, have begun testing LTE-A and even minimally deploying it, but there has been very little official word from them due to the fact that the technology isn’t quite ready for the mass market.
In fact, AT&T actually offers a mobile hotspot called the Unite that supports LTE-A, but LTE-A coverage is so limited that AT&T doesn’t even show coverage for it on their website or advertize it.
Because of all the marketing terms out there, it can be difficult to know if you’re truly getting 4G speeds. So how can you know if the device and network you’re using supports LTE-A/4G+? Your best bet is to check your carrier’s website. As soon as carriers have their LTE-A services set up, they will advertize it as much as they can.
But How Exactly Does It Work?
LTE-A/4G+ is actually an amalgamation of several different technologies. The biggest of these is called “carrier aggregation.” It’s kind of a misnomer, as it has nothing to do with aggregating wireless carriers. What it does, in a very simplified form, is allow your device to send and receive data from two different frequencies (known as bands) at the same time, which translates to faster speeds.
At the moment, most devices come with several different bands on them. Most have the standard 2G and 3G bands, as well as a host of 4G LTE bands. Up until now, phones could only receive and send data from one of these bands at a time — you just needed all the bands there because your carrier may have one band available in one market and another band available in another market.
However, carrier aggregation allows for sending and receiving data on two different bands at once, essentially doubling your speed. Think of it as a road. Let’s say there was only one road to Location A and you’re trying to send as many cars there as possible. You could only send so many cars down that road at a time, so instead of trying to speed up all the cars on that road, you simply open up a second road. With two roads leading to Location A, all your cars get there in half the time.
That’s only one part of LTE-A, though, and we’ll be seeing more and more of it getting deployed over the coming months. In fact, it’s possible to have carrier aggregation without it being considered LTE-A. For instance, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus both support carrier aggregation, but they’re still limited to the slower speeds of LTE because of hardware limitations.
In terms of data speed, there are two important terms to know here: CAT4 (Category 4) and CAT6 (Category 6). Devices that support CAT4 speeds can reach a theoretical speed of 150Mbps, while devices that support CAT6 speeds can reach a theoretical speed of 300Mbps. In the real world, those speeds are considerably slower, but you still get much faster data from having a device and network that support CAT6 speeds.
LTE-A should also be able to handle switching between cell towers more efficiently, meaning that customers should run into fewer issues with data when moving between areas.
What About Fragmentation?
Android users may be familiar with fragmentation, but in this case the fragmentation is surrounding LTE bands. 3G bands are generally the same everywhere (though not completely), which makes travelling abroad a lot easier. In the case of the United States, Sprint and Verizon are both guilty of using CDMA technology instead of the globally-favored GSM for 3G data, complicating things a bit.
Still, for the vast majority of users on AT&T, T-Mobile, or outside of the United States, they can generally travel and still get 3G speeds. The same can’t be said of 4G LTE, and it certainly isn’t getting any better with LTE-A. The use of 4G LTE bands varies widely from country to country, and LTE-A makes that tougher by requiring not just one band to be available, but at least two.
Let’s say in the near future you’re one of the lucky few who buys an LTE-A-capable device and lives in an area with LTE-A coverage. Your carrier probably uses a very specific combination of two LTE bands in your area for your LTE-A speeds, which means that even if you travel to another country and region that has LTE-A available, it’s likely that even if your phone supports one of their LTE bands, it won’t support both.
A possible solution to this? Phones with dozens of bands, literally. Google’s American version of the Nexus 6 has twelve different LTE bands! And on top of that, it supports carrier aggregation with seven different combinations of those bands. This makes sense, though, because the Nexus 6 is meant to be an unlocked phone capable of being used on any network. If you’re buying a variant of a phone made specifically for your region or carrier, it’s very likely that it has bands specific to that region or carrier. Samsung is especially guilty of making dozens of different variants of its phones. This is one of the reasons we suggest buying unlocked phones.
If you’re looking to jump on the LTE-A/4G+ bandwagon as soon as possible, your best bet is to either buy a phone directly from your carrier to ensure compatibility, or check the LTE bands of the unlocked device you want with the bands that your carrier supports.
4GX, though it sounds fancy, is just a clever marketing term seemingly only in use by Telstra in Australia. They’re able to get away with the fancy new name because they spent over 1.3 billion Australian dollars buying a new chunk of spectrum for it.
Though they haven’t been advertizing anything concerning it yet, Australian carrier Optus also bought some 700MHz spectrum that should help speed up their network. This 700MHz spectrum travels particularly far and has good wall penetration, meaning stronger coverage indoors and in rural areas.
But, at the end of the day, 4GX is still just regular 4G LTE. The main advantage is that by opening up all this new spectrum, they relieve some of the congestion on their other spectrums. Think of it as opening a new lane on a crowded highway; everybody gets to go a bit faster!
Only phones that support the 700MHz band will be compatible, obviously, but the good news is that most smartphones released within the last year or two support that. Still, it’s probably a stretch to call 4GX “next-gen” in any sense of the word, but it still is a nice boost for any Aussies over there.
Remember how we were talking about fancy marketing terms in the last section? Well, Verizon overheard, and they didn’t want to be left out. XLTE is basically Verizon’s version of 4GX; in other words, it’s just a way of describing how they’re opening up more LTE spectrum.
In this case, Verizon bought a chunk of AWS spectrum. I know what you’re thinking, “Crap, another annoying acronym,” and I feel you. Sometimes it seems like they’re just making things up to make things more complicated, but this one’s not so hard.
AWS stands for Advanced Wireless Service, and it’s just a made up name for what is essentially an LTE band. Though most LTE bands are only numbered, this one gets a name because it operates a little differently. It uses the 1700MHz spectrum for uploads, and 2100MHz spectrum for downloads, whereas all other bands use the same chunk of spectrum for uploads and downloads.
That may sound like LTE-A — using two bands at the same time — but it’s not. LTE-A allows for two different bands to be used at the same time, whereas AWS still only uses one band at a time — it just needs to alternate between them for uploads and downloads.
So by turning on this AWS spectrum, Verizon suddenly lightens the load on its existing LTE network, while creating a brand new lane for AWS-compatible devices to use. Just like in the case of 4GX with Telstra, this creates faster speeds across the board while not necessarily evolving past 4G LTE.
VoLTE stands for Voice Over LTE, which (can you guess?) transmits your voice over LTE. It’s basically phone calls, but using data instead of traditional cell phone networks.
You know how browsing the Web uses your data, but making a phone call uses your minutes? Think of VoLTE as making your phone calls a part of your data too, and completely cutting out your minutes. In a semi-near future, we’ll probably all be using VoLTE and routing everything through our data.
Advantages And Disadvantages
Your knee-jerk reaction to this might be that you talk a lot on the phone and don’t want it affecting your capped data plan. That’s a legitimate worry, which is why — for now at least — carriers who are implementing VoLTE are generally allowing the data used to count towards your minutes rather than your data plan. They could change that at any time, but at least for now, that’s how it is.
The good news is that VoLTE brings a huge quality improvement over current phone calls. You’ll get much, much clearer audio with HD voice than current phone technology, and it’s actually surprising that it’s taken so long to get to this point. It’s an integral part to building the perfect smartphone.
The main disadvantage is that it’s only available where LTE is available, which is a pretty large area by now, but it still isn’t everywhere that old 2G and 3G can reach.
For Verizon customers, using VoLTE means you can’t leave the LTE zone or you’ll lose coverage, and if you start a regular phone call in a 3G zone and then move into a 4G zone, your call won’t improve. This is because Verizon’s VoLTE implementation can’t switch mid-call between regular phone calls and VoLTE phone calls.
For AT&T, T-Mobile, and most carriers outside of the US, this transition problem doesn’t exist thanks to the way their networks are set up.
How Can I Get It?
Like everything in this list, it depends on your region and carrier. Verizon is calling it “Advanced Calling 1.0“, HD Voice, and VoLTE. It should be enabled on compatible devices by default, but you can manually turn it off or on. AT&T is calling it HD Voice or VoLTE, and many of their devices already support it and should work by default including the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4.
As this technology is in its infancy, you’re currently limited to only calling people on your own carrier — so AT&T to AT&T calls work with HD Voice, but not AT&T to Verizon calls. Still, carriers are working on this, and it should get better over the course of 2015.
Internationally, VoLTE implementation is all over the place. Your best bet, again, is to check with your carrier to see if they support it.
Which of These Are You Using?
Hopefully that answered all of your questions about these confusing acronyms. If you’ve got more questions, our guide on cellular frequency bands is sure to come in handy. It can help you ensure maximum compatibility across locations and carriers when you’re buying a new mobile phone.
Explore more about: Mobile Broadband.